Ansel Adams was an astounding photographer who influenced many aspiring landscape photographers and became a household name amongst photographers. However he seldom stepped out of his bubble of landscape expertise to photograph people. His friend, Imogen Cunningham had a much broader range with a focus on portraiture but never acquired the same recognition that Adams did. Annie Leibovitz also springs to mind as a master portrait photographer, but is far too modern for what I want to know; how did portraiture get where it is today?

My question is who shaped the portraiture scene pre 1960s?

In the name of keeping the question more specific, there are two specific people I wish to know about. Who first popularised the photography portrait (I suspect this will be pre 1900!) and who first popularised candid photography. Furthermore if there was someone that popularised the concept of superior image quality pre the f/64 club that would be very interesting to me.

I am aware that this is an atypical question that can be perceived fairly soft and broad question, so please keep opinion out of it and just state those that greatly influenced the sub culture whislt keeping it within the confines of the question. Any supporting references would be ideal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Someone's got homework... :) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 20, 2014 at 13:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is on-topic and answerable. Sure, there's some opinion-based aspects, but fundamentally, so is all of art history. Asking about the most important photographers today is hard, but for more than 50 years ago, we should collectively have some perspective. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 20, 2014 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ElendilTheTall Don't worry, its not homework. Just got into a debate and realised this is something I should know! \$\endgroup\$
    – James
    Nov 20, 2014 at 17:24

2 Answers 2


Great question - one of the shapers of portraiture was Éduard Steichen for a few reasons -

  • He was a very early photographer ~ 1900s onward ~ consequently, he influenced later photographers simply because he was early.
  • He photographed his portrait subjects in context of their fame / reputation / or in context of their work.
  • He was a master of studio lighting.
  • He considered the entire process from conception, to capture, to development and importantly, to how a photograph would be displayed.
  • He was a compositional genius such that not only was the photograph an insightful portrait of someone, the photograph itself was often compelling simply because of its artistic or compositional value - even if you didn't know the subject of the portrait.

So, those are some of the reasons why I think Edward Steichen was a 'shaper' of pre-1960 portraiture.

PS. If you can explain why he was a master of studio lighting and what makes strong compositional value, then you should get an A on your homework.

EDIT: Oops - I forgot to mention your requested reference part - unfortunately, the reference was from an large Edward Steichen Exhibition at a museum in Paris from a few years ago ~ 2007ish and also from a smaller Edward Steichen exhibit at the NYC International Center for Photography.


Many early photographers were influenced by conventions in painting that had existed for a few hundred years previous to the invention of photography (this is true of Adams and earlier landscape painting). For example, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was influenced by early Italian Renaissance painting as were other photographers from the mid nineteenth century. Cameron and other Pre-Raphaelite painters and photographers were drawing upon content from a time that marked an explosion in portraiture: http://italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-5/essays/portraiture-2/ arguably due in part to the rise of certain classes within society.

Many of the pictorial conventions developed in 15th century Italy and earlier still exist today. So I'm making the argument that the creation of a form, say photographic portraiture, doesn't belong to a single person but should be looked at as a construction that takes place over time in which many people take part. The work of Edward Curtis, Daguerre, and Bresson are certainly part of that, but I wouldn't say they defined the form in a vacuum.

As far as influence I don't think Steichen is a bad choice as one of the many who helped to define the medium. I would also point to his The Family of Man exhibition, first shown in 1955 at MoMA. I believe it has been seen by more people than any other art exhibit in history and a version still exists in Luxembourg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Family_of_Man

For ideas, theory, and the history surrounding photography, Susan Sontag's book On Photography is a good place to start. There's a bit about early portraiture in the first chapter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I totally agree that early photographers were influenced by even earlier visual artists regardless of discipline. It's still true today; one day I hope to take a landscape photograph that would look like a Frederic Church painting. \$\endgroup\$
    – B Shaw
    Nov 22, 2014 at 23:50

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